Veteran jazz pianist Joe Sample, a founder and staple of the much-lauded innovative combo the (Jazz) Crusaders for four decades, takes a long overdue solo turn with a six-day gig at Gotham’s Blue Note.
Sample’s opening set featured selections from new Verve CD “Soul Shadows,” a collection of solo interpretations in tribute to big-band frontman, jazz pioneer and World War I vet James Reese English. Sample offered a much told but more likely an apocryphal vision of hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as drum major for English’s 369th regiment band in a victory parade down the Champs Elysees.
Focused on the formative music and groundbreaking composers of the ’20s and ’30s, Sample is a profoundly dedicated disciple of what jazz has left behind. As a historian he has mined the legacies of Harlem’s legendary ragtime composer and pianist James P. Johnson and Johnson’s formidable protégé Thomas “Fats” Waller.
The sound of Harlem in the ’20s is recalled with “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” a ditty actually from 1936 that roars and kicks with old-time ragtime flavor. It was followed by Waller’s enduring classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The latter was played with a rare poetically layered approach, laced with a trenchant base and a melancholy lining. The unsung torchy lyrics came quickly spinning through one’s mind.
Sample recaptured Johnson’s legendary stride style on “Carolina Shout,” demonstrating the accustomed power and strength of the left hand, accented by a bright, nimble expression from the right.
For a dazzling finale, Sample played a tune one is unlikely to hear in a jazz mecca, the 1919 postwar song “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” The old novelty was not only an expression of exuberant joie de vivre, but an enlightening demonstration of the journey jazz has taken through the ages.
Joined by bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum, Sample took a more contemporary role with a poetic approach to Burt Bacharach’s “A House Is Not a Home,” a dancing “Texas Two Step” and a bluesy New Orleans voodoo grave dance called “X Marks the Spot.” Sample’s set offered a veritable quick study in the history of the jazz piano as expressed by a master of the form.
Sample swings west for concert stops including a Feb. 19 solo turn in Newark, Ohio.